Meeting District Needs Opinion

Are All Choices a Choice?

By Deborah Meier — December 08, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

There has always been a special American admiration for wealth as a sign of God’s favor. Status from wealth was celebrated as more democratic compared with status from lineage. It’s part of our exceptionalism. It’s at a high mark right now, best expressed by Newt Gingrich’s comment to the Occupiers to “take a bath and get a job.” I think of it as I read your accounts of how some of our fellow Americans have taken to the slogans about the opportunities lurking in every human disaster—to other people (e.g. New Orleans).

Lots of old slogans reappear in new guise, like the pre-French Revolution one about the freedom of both the rich and the poor to sleep under a bridge. (I don’t actually think that freedom still exists!)

One of my readers suggests that in opposing charters and vouchers you and I are taking choice away from the poor. He also chides us for having “the nerve,” as old, white ladies (actually, Diane, you aren’t old!), to give the poor advice at all. Maybe that’s why some of his fellow thinkers believe teachers should be paid poorly—especially in poor neighborhoods—since they are obliged to give advice to the poor on occasion.

Actually, I don’t want anyone—in public or private schools—to make a lot of money off of something that we believe is a necessity not only for the student, but for the greater good of society, and that we even require all children to have by law. In fact, I’m probably against extreme wealth, period. (A study recently suggested that $75,000 is the amount that brings us maximum happiness; after that, it’s all gravy. The study may be a little out-of-date, not accurate for a family, or for living in New York City, but you get the point.)

Actually, it was a lot of little, old, white ladies and gentlemen who advised the poor that test scores were good, ditto re. getting college certificates. They drummed it into the poor, so when I advise families to look more skeptically at what they’ve been sold, I think it helps the poor widen their choices.

Besides, I do have a lot of nerve and am grateful for it.

Like freedom, choice is a complicated virtue in society. Yes, freedom unless ... Ditto for choice. Human rights and choices are sometimes comfortable together and sometimes not. If I want my child with a mere 100 I.Q. to attend classes with kids with more-academic smarts, while you with a child who has a 130 I.Q. want to be sure that your child keeps company only with smart peers—well, we can’t both win. (Especially if we are typical of most parents.) Then it comes to who has the power to get what they want or to persuade the other side that what they want is good for everyone.

If I choose the bigger, brighter corner classroom, someone else doesn’t get it. Sometimes, in schools I’ve known, that means the principal’s favorite gets first choice. So unions get into regulating choice! Ditto for who gets the “best” students, prep periods, etc.

Solving this requires at least acknowledging it and then finding reasonable ways to handle it. Sometimes research helps, but sometimes goodwill and trust work. Much depends on how and who makes decisions for the whole.

If charters had stuck to their original selling point—the need for innovation on a small, less-regulated scale before we mandated it on a large scale—there’d be a few grumbles and otherwise just curiosity. But, as you point out, Diane, it’s clear that the charters are mostly not innovative, not doing better than the alternative regular public schools, nor designed to be labs to strengthen the larger system. Rather, they are mostly attempts, through the back door, to replace public education with a parallel system of semi-public/semi-private schools; and that, whether they do better or not, will get favored treatment as long as there’s money to be made. That’s a change.

It often broke my heart when youngsters in poor neighborhoods thought our schools in the Bronx were somehow “private” because they were so pretty and so special. In fact, many of the very oldest urban public schools were architectural jewels, built at a time when we thought public institutions deserved to be glorified. (Compare Julia Richman to Brandeis in Manhattan, built 50 years apart.)

Still I, too, believe in choice ... if and when it can be done in ways that do not take away choice from others. East Harlem in the 1970s and ‘80s was such a place. The geographical territory was small (maybe one square mile), and the strategy made all schools into choices. Or almost all. There were two or three exam-based schools out of the 51 schools Tony Alvarado “created” in New York at the strategy’s peak (in 21 buildings). We started Central Park East II (and III) as a solution to a waiting list. The point was not to have parents and kids kept waiting. The East Harlem solution is dependent upon context, and it had to be sold to the community before it spread widely.

In contrast, the Pilot schools in Boston were meant as experimental labs, not as an experiment in choice (which Boston already had for other reasons) but in teaching, learning, and governance practices. The Pilots were largely very innovative and got good results, but few of their practices were allowed to be implemented in all schools. The “Big Boys” you describe so well, Diane, chose instead to put their weight behind charters rather than Pilots.

There are lessons to be learned, but not always simple ones.

I take the same position re. “common” so-called “core standards"—in short, the idea of a single, nationally imposed curriculum (grade by grade and tested by common high-stakes tools). Even if we dropped the high stakes, I would not favor it for reasons I’d like to expand on, next week, which have to do with my respect for choice. Here I switch sides with my privatization friends.


P.S. Tony Alvarado, when questioned about his management style said: “I may at times risk going to jail to avoid going to hell.” (Or words to that effect.) We enjoyed it. Nicholas Kristof in his column last Thursday said something similar of the greed of bankers: “That’s not just bad economics. It’s also wrong.” It turns out they don’t even risk jail. The Occupiers have reminded us that some things may turn a profit, but still unquestionably be just “wrong.”

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